Guest Opinion: Tenure Victory Shows What’s Possible

Christie’s signature on overhaul comes with teacher’s union and bipartisan support

The easiest thing in the media is to bash and criticize government for being dysfunctional and counterproductive. If you turn on FOX News, MSNBC, or CNN any night of the week, you can see Congress getting bashed for an inability to work with the President or the White House for one screw up or another.

One of the biggest reasons it is easy to criticize government is because it seems to be pretty rare when the legislative and the executive branch can come together, along with key special interest groups, and actually do something that makes sense — create sound public policy that will hopefully improve things. When that happens, we in the media have a responsibility to shine a light on that success and let the public know that the public’s business is being done in a reasonable and credible fashion. This is exactly what took place last Monday when very significant tenure reform legislation was signed into law by Governor Chris Christie. This reform will change the way school systems deal with teachers who are not performing in the classroom and no longer deserve to be in front of our kids.

Sponsored by Senator Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat, the tenure reform law will take effect in the 2013 school year. But tenure reform is not a partisan initiative; therefore, members of both parties were on board. Further, what is particularly significant is that the NJEA, which represents the vast majority of public school teachers in our state, ultimately agreed to support the effort to change the tenure law. The teachers union ultimately contributed in a positive way to the outcome of this most significant tenure debate.

It’s a safe bet that Governor Christie and the NJEA will battle again in the future and there will be some name calling down the road. But last week, on this initiative, the governor and the teachers union joined together with a host of prominent legislators from both sides of the aisle, lead by Senator Ruiz, to improve our tenure laws on behalf of public school children. More specifically, teachers will no longer be eligible for tenure after three years, but will now have to work four years in the classroom before being considered. In addition, even after a teacher receives tenure, under this new law he or she can lose that teaching job if he or she receives a sub-par evaluation two years in a row. It may not sound like much, but this is a very big deal in a state like New Jersey where many have criticized our tenure laws for years, but without serious movement to change the status quo.

Further, some who are critical of the tenure law that was ultimately passed criticize it because they say that teacher seniority is still a factor when a school district needs to fire teachers. In fact, Governor Christie had advocated that school districts be able to lay off teachers regardless of how many years they have under their belt. But the NJEA held firm on this issue. Something had to give. Some believed that Governor Christie should not sign the bill as long as this seniority issue was not resolved. Fortunately, to the governor’s credit, he did compromise because half a loaf of bread is still a lot better than no loaf at all. Contrary to the Tea Party’s philosophy, compromise in government and public policy is not a dirty word.

Legislation and laws as are not meant to be perfect. They are meant to create improvements in a very imperfect system. We can all go back to criticizing, pointing fingers and playing the blame game soon enough, but for right now, I say it’s time to say bravo to everyone in the Statehouse who had a hand in achieving genuine tenure reform. There is enough credit to go around. Imagine what else could be done if all parties involved just took a step back and asked themselves what really matters in the grand scheme of things. In this case, it was public school children. And on this occasion, our kids won big.

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